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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Happy Revisionist History Day

Revised and expanded from last year's "Memorial Day" post.

Since, as Paddy Chayefsky has his main character say in his movie The Americanization of Emily, " We...perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices" (see this and this), I've long thought that what is called Memorial Day would be better recast as Revisionist History Day. The state inculcates an unquestioning faith in its war-making by associating it with patriotism, heroism, and the defense of "our freedoms." This strategy builds in its own defense against any criticism of the government's policies. Anyone who questions the morality of a war is automatically suspected of being unpatriotic, unappreciative of the bravery that has "kept us free," and disrespectful of "our troops," in a word, un-American.

But in fact the forces aren't "serving their country" or "keeping us free." They are doing the bidding of hack politicians, well-connected economic interests, and court intellectuals who are striving to achieve personal ambition, wealth, and historical legacies.

The secular religion we call nationalism, which keeps the wool over most people's eyes, can be seen clearly in the criticism of Barack Obama for not wearing a flag lapel pin and his wife for saying she's not been proud of her country until now. What is this thing, "country," that we're expected to love and be proud of? It's never defined. But a big part of it is obviously the state and its war record. This is supposedly something to be proud of -- and if you're not, something is wrong with you.

To counter this common outlook, which people are indoctrinated in from birth, we should do what we can to teach others that the government's version of its wars is always self-serving and threatening to life, liberty, and decency. A good way to spend part of the day would be to pick a war and read a high-quality revisionist account of it. Here are some books (in no particular order) you might use as a guide:

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, by Paul Fussell
Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men
: A History of the American Civil War, by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel
The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, by William Appleman Williams
The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition, by Arthur Ekirch
The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic, 1890-1920, by Walter Karp
The Costs of War, edited by John Denson
Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, by Stephen Kinzer
All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, by Stephen Kinzer
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, by Chalmers Johnson
War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin
The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, by David Hirst

A good place to start is this article by Robert Higgs: "How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan's Attack on Pearl Harbor" (The Freeman, May 2006).

Many other books and articles could be added to the list. The point is this: if we are to prevent wars in the future, we must self-educate and then, when opportune, teach others.

And spend part Revisionist History Day watching The Americanization of Emily. It'll be worth your while.


Anonymous said...

While you are at the video rental place, also get a copy of Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant movie Network. That movie is so pre-scient.

PhysicistDave said...


A couple years ago, my mother happened to mention to me that although she did “know” that we were supposed to be on the Israelis’ side, she could not help herself for feeling sorry for the Palestinians when she saw the suffering they were enduring. About the same time, my brother-in-law’s mom made a similar comment to me: she had volunteered that she had a controversial opinion on the Mideast, but was reluctant to divulge it until I insisted.

Fortunately, both of these ladies’ innate sense of humanity was enough to overcome their social conditioning.

But isn’t that the real problem? How many Americans, at a family gathering or group of friends today, feel that they could causally mention that American soldiers did not really die for us or our freedom without facing a torrent of personal abuse heaped upon them?

It is not just that most Americans disagree with that view. It is rather that even stating such a view for consideration is almost tantamount to saying that one favors cannibalism or pedophilia. To most Americans it is beyond wrong: it is a grave disruption of social comity.

On the merits, we could win the debate. But to try to open such a debate is to immediately condemn ourselves in the eyes of most of our fellow citizens.

Our opponents have manipulated social norms and expectations so as to control what topics can be discussed or even mentioned in polite company.

I don’t have a solution. But I’m not sure that further educating ourselves will do that much good until we can change the social atmosphere so that discussing the issue is at least possible.

Dave Miller in Sacramento

Anonymous said...

excellent article

Anonymous said...

Excellent ideas Sheldon.

Also, instead of firing up the grill and drinking beer on Memorial Day, wouldn't a fast day be more appropriate?

Anonymous said...

Loved the article.

The more veterans we create, the more veterans and dependents there are who will demand more gratitude on Memorial Day, the day for glorifying death and destuction.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great article on the issue of war, Sheldon. I've become convinced that the first step in abolishing the state is debunking the myths of the "war system". Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Excellent commentary. It's nice to know there are other people out there who see through the absurd lie that the military "fights for our freedom."

How many countries would be capable of occupying the US today when the US military can't even manage to subdue Iraq? No foreign power has been a danger to American freedom for at least a century.

The only danger to our freedom is the US government, since it makes the laws that are intended to limit freedom. And the military and police obey that government without question.

Nima Shirazi said...

Thank you for this, Sheldon.

It's good to know there are at least some other people out there who aren't blinded by nationalist nonsense.

If only we could simply remember the days (daze?) of American Empire, instead of having to live through it.

All the best,

Eugene Costa said...

The point is made brilliantly in subtly in The History Boys:

"The truth was, in 1914, Germany doesn't want war. Yeah, there's an arms race, but it's Britain who's leading it. So, why does no one admit this?

[approaching a war memorial]

That's why. The dead. The body count. We don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault cos so many of our people died. And all the mourning's veiled the truth. It's not "lest we forget", it's "lest we remember". That's what all this is about - the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes' silence. Because there is no better way if forgetting something than by commemorating it."

Anonymous said...

Bravo Sheldon!

You have broken the code that enslaves Americans to the big pro-military lie. Although paid through forced taxation, those who choose to enter the military system are not "our" troops, but loyal to their master(s) dictating their orders to go around the world, flying the flag and carrying arms. They do not follow you and are not your or "our" property. They listen to and obey their bosses. If they don't do what they are commanded, they risk imprisonment or even death at the hands of their own government. It is fear of American government punishment that pushes them into ugly situations. To disobey is a capital crime for them, the worst part of the State's power.

Joel Schlosberg said...

What about revisionist history in the domestic arena? Does that get its own day too, and if so, which one?

Anonymous said...

Good post

reda said...
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